Today I’m excited and pleased to post my recent interview with Nicole Johns, author of Purge: Rehab Diaries.
Nicole Johns lives in the Twin Cities of Minnesota, where she teaches English. She earned her MFA from the University of Minnesota and a BA in English from Penn State University. The summer after starting the MFA program, Nicole went into treatment for her eating disorder. Her first book, Purge: Rehab Diaries, is about the time she spent in treatment after nine years of suffering from the disease. The book was nominated for ForeWord Magazine’s book of the Year Award in memoir. Nicole has also published poems in numerous literary magazines.
Watch the 2-part video of the interview, or scroll down to read the transcript.(Note: for some reason the small frame that displays my side of the interview was frozen; fortunately, Nicole’s image recorded correctly.)
AS: Purge: Rehab Diaries came out of the journaling you did while in rehab for eating disorders. I’m curious about how you used your journals to write your memoir. Would you talk a little about your journaling practice then and now? Do you write daily, or at a regular time? Do you have any journal writing rituals? And how has your journal writing practice changed, if at all, between 2000 and now?
NJ: To be honest, I used to write in a journal every day, multiple times a day, but now I write in my journal only if I’m traveling, or once every couple of months. I think I wrote in my journal so much when I was actively eating disordered, because it was an emotional outlet for me. In a way it was a written purge. When I write in my journal now, I like to sit on our balcony, and burn a candle. I used to like to write in my journal at my favorite coffee shop in Minneapolis, because I liked the atmosphere there. My journal writing really tapered off after my stint in treatment, and when I had a few months of recovery under my belt. I am trying to get back into journaling, because it keeps me in the practice of writing, and is also beneficial to my mental health.
AS: How did you use your journals as source material? Can you describe the process for us?
NJ: I kept very detailed journals during my time in treatment, but also for several years beforehand. I looked at them as a primary source for the story I was trying to tell. If I couldn’t remember something off the top of my head, I could always refer back to my journals. Reading them also sparked some memories that I had forgotten. When I first started writing Purge, I took segments from my journal, pasted them on a blank Word document, and just wrote from the segment. It served as a kind of epigraph. So, I started writing Purge by using journal entries, and even specific lines from my journal. They were the seeds for my memoir. Having all those journals was immensely helpful.
AS: I understand you’re in the process of writing a novel. Do you use journaling as part of your writing process? If so, how?
NJ: I am working on a novel (I have 20 pages as of this weekend, yay!) and I am using a type of journaling, but it is different in that I am using this journal to record memories I think might be helpful in writing my novel, and I’m also using it to keep stats and information on my characters, setting, etc. I’m using this journal more as an organizational tool, and as a place to jot down ideas, questions, etc. I do have a more traditional journal, too, that is composed of my thoughts, feelings, etc.
AS: In your guest blog for National Association of Memoir Writers, you wrote that the process of writing Purge gave you insight into your disorder and taught you how to have empathy for yourself—something all writers need, I think. Can you expand on this a little? How has the writing process contributed to your healing process?
NJ: Writing Purge forced me to confront exactly what I had been doing to myself with the eating disorder. I couldn’t gloss over the ugly details, and what I was doing to my body and to my life. But, by writing about my experience, at times I would see myself as a character in the book, and having that distance made me better able to empathize with myself. Writing Purge was cathartic. Writers are often ashamed to admit that writing is (or sometimes can be) cathartic, but I don’t think there’s any shame in admitting that. It doesn’t lessen the value or literary merit of your writing to have had a sense of catharsis when writing something.
I think writing Purge allowed me to move on from all things eating disorder. And I think I had to write it, before I could write a novel. I remember reading something about Alice Sebold and how she had to write Lucky, her memoir about having been raped, in order to be able to write The Lovely Bones. When I read that, it made perfect sense to me. Sometimes you just have to deal with a subject or event before you can move on both in life, and in writing. I think writing and publishing Purge has definitely helped me heal.
AS: Your memoir has the reputation of being “unflinching” and “brutally honest,” as well as incredibly personal. Can you talk to us a little about how did you manage to be both honest with yourself and with your readers? And what compelled you to publish your story instead of keeping it to yourself?
NJ: When I set out to write Purge, I knew that I wanted to be brutally honest about my experience, because I believe it is a disservice to readers to sugarcoat the truth. So my aim was to always be unflinching and brutally honest, because I thought my readers deserved that, the honest truth. That’s what I want as a reader.
I decided to publish Purge, because there weren’t any memoirs about EDNOS (eating disorder not otherwise specified) out there, and EDNOS often gets overlooked. Everyone knows about anorexia and bulimia, but no one really talks about EDNOS. I also wanted to publish my story, because I knew there would be other people that could relate to it, and I wanted to help other people with eating disorders, especially EDNOS, feel less alone, and to give them hope that they could recover. I also wanted to dispel some common myths about eating disorders, and eating disorder treatment.
AS: What kinds of research did you do while working on your memoir?
NJ: I researched other memoirs, self-help books, and scholarly articles about eating disorders. I also did another type of research in that I collected “evidence” by ordering my treatment records, looking at my journals, photos, emails I sent during that time, anything like that. I also talked to people that knew me when I was actively eating disordered and in treatment, and got their perspective.
AS: What would you say you gained most, as a writer, through the process of writing Purge? And how is that helping you as you go forward in your career?
NJ: I gained the experience of writing, publishing, and publicizing a book. Even though I had gone through an MFA program, I was pretty clueless about what happened when a publisher picked up your book. I also learned how to organize a book, and I think writing Purge taught me a lot about perseverance. A byproduct of publishing Purge is that I’ve gotten validation for myself as a writer, and I’ve also gotten the incredible opportunity to help people, and do some advocacy surrounding eating disorders and mental health. That has been tremendous, and I feel very blessed. Purge has been good for my career, in that I’m hoping that selling my second book will be easier because I had a successful first book. Writing and publishing Purge also made me realize that I’m very interested in mental health and psychology, and that I wanted to pursue a Masters in counseling. I don’t know that that is something I would’ve discovered in life had I not written and published Purge.
AS: What is your writing process like now?
NJ: To be honest, I have had a very long dry spell that I’m just now coming out of. I’ve been busy publicizing Purge, working crazy hours, going back to school, and getting married, all in the last two years. But, things have calmed down a bit, and I’m writing again.
I just got back from a self-designed weekend writing retreat on the North Shore of MN, and it really kick-started my novel. I wrote 20 pages and an outline in two days. I needed some solitude, no internet connection and no cell phone service, so that I could concentrate. November and December are crazy, so I’m hoping to establish a writing schedule come January, when I have more free time. I will probably write in the mornings when I’m not teaching or taking class. I like to write at my nice big desk, and have some candles burning, while drinking coffee. I also like to write at certain coffee shops in the Twin Cities. I used to be a late night writer, but since I’ve gotten older I prefer morning writing.
AS: Is there anything else you’d like to share that might interest readers of WritingThroughLife.com?
NJ: Well, I have a website, NicoleJJohns.com, and I’ve got something coming up with the National Association of Memoir Writers, I think in December, but I’d have to check on the date.
AS:Thank you, Nicole. We appreciate you taking time to join us here and share with us your journaling and writing processes.